Monday 31 October 2011

Big Daddy (Genesis 22)

Muslims, Jews and Christians look to him as the father of their faith. Their scriptures point to him as a man of God - the one who displayed true faith in God. All three claim to be descendants of this one man, children and heirs of the promises first given by God to this same one man. The Qur’an calls him Ibrahim. We know him better as Abraham.

Though, the bible first introduces Abraham with a different name - Abram. For six chapters from Genesis 11 through 16, he is always referred to as Abram - a name which meant “Father”. God changed his name in Chapter 17 to Abraham - “Father of many”, or as I like to call him, “Big Daddy”. God promised Abraham that he would receive tremendous blessing, but they weren’t for him alone. God’s promise of blessing would pass down to his children, and to his children’s children. It was a three-fold promise of (1) land (specifically, the land of Canaan), (2) blessing (he would be successful) and (3) innumerable descendants (hence the name, Big Daddy).

The irony was: Abraham had no kids. His wife, Sarah, was barren (Genesis 11:30) and both of them were very old. He was 75 years-old when God first called him in Genesis 12. It was only 25 years later, when Abraham was a hundred years-old that Isaac was born to him and Sarah. The name Isaac means “he laughs”. Sarah says “God has brought me laughter” (Genesis 21:6). This baby boy meant everything to his elderly parents. Isaac was their joy and laughter.

But now God was about to test Abraham with his son, his highest joy and his truest treasure.

The son whom you love

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
Genesis 22:1-2

Notice how God refers to Isaac. “Your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love”. What does God tell Abraham to do with this son whom he loves? “Offer him as a burnt offering.”

Abraham was a wealthy man by this point in his life. But nowhere in the bible does God test Abraham by asking him to give away his money. Neither was God telling Abraham to send his son away, the way he did with Ishmael and his mother Hagar just a few verses earlier in Genesis 21. No, God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The Hebrew word ‘Ola is the same word used when describing how Noah offered up animals on the altar after the flood in Genesis 8. It was a whole burnt offering - all of Isaac was to be offered up and nothing held back. His life, his body, his blood - sacrificed on an altar to God.

Abraham obeyed.

He cut the wood

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him.
Genesis 22:3

Notice how the focus stays on Abraham. He rose up. He took the young men. He cut the wood. He arose and went.

This was something he had to do alone. He had servants with him but as far as we can tell from these verses, he did everything himself. He got up bright and early and started packing for the three day journey. He didn’t even let them chop the wood. Here was a hundred year-old man, a wealthy businessman with servants paid to wait on him hand and foot - here was Abraham packing the sandwiches, changing the engine oil, doing all the manual labour.

He had to do this. It was his son. Abraham had to do this alone.

It’s like the time when you first got into uni and your mum fusses over your luggage - to the point that she packs the entire suitcase for you. It’s almost like therapy for her: Shopping for the Bee Cheng Hiang bakwa, the ten million packs of curry powder you know you’ll never be able to use up, enough Bak Kut Teh spices to last till Jesus returns. Then goes in the ten jumpers, twenty pairs of underwear and every t-shirt you’ve ever owned since you were six - including the one with the big green “MILO” logo in front. And while you are tempted to say, “Mum, I don’t need all this!” You still let her do it. Because you’re lazy... I mean, because you love her. And you know that this is your mother’s way of saying, “I love you.”

I wonder if Abraham did all this, in part, to take his mind of the terrible situation ahead of him. Perhaps even, to delay it as long as he could. He chopped the wood. He got the donkey ready. But in the end, he obeyed God. He set off for the place God had told him.

The long walk

On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.
Genesis 22:4-6

It took three days to get to Moriah and verse 4 says at this point, “Abraham… saw the place from afar.” It is so interesting what he does next. It’s still far off. There’s still a fair bit of distance to cover. But what does Abraham do? He gets off the donkey. He leaves his servants behind. And he takes a long walk with his son.

He wanted these last moments to be just him and Isaac. It’s debatable how old Isaac was at this point in the story. He could talk and he was strong enough to carry wood. Yet later on he was weak enough that Abraham could bind him to the wood.

Verse 6 says he laid the wood on Isaac. He made him carry it. Now, the fact that they needed two servants and a donkey to get this far suggests that it was a lot of wood. I wonder, if again, this was Abraham making the most of the journey. Slowing down these last moments of their time together.

What we do know is they talked. Big Daddy and his son, his only son, the son whom he loved most in the entire world. They walked and they talked, as a father with his son.

God will provide

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.
Genesis 22:7-8

One of the reasons why I chose this passage today is because of a conversation I had recently with my friend, Wallace, who told me that as a father of two children of his own, he admired Abraham for his example as a father: He always spoke about God. One thing Abraham always did was build altars to God. Now, I need to be clear that this was well before the time of Moses - there was no tabernacle, no priests, no God-prescribed place of worship - and also that Abraham didn’t simply build altars willy-nilly. Rather, these were firstly memorials to God’s appearances to Abraham. When God first appeared to Abraham in Chapter 12, he built an altar. God speaks to him again in Canaan, so he builds another altar at Mamre (Genesis 13). These altars were places where God blessed Abraham and where Abraham, in turn, worshipped God and thanked God.

So here in verse 7, Isaac his son turns to Abraham and asks his father about worship. They are going to worship God on the mountain and they are carrying with them wood and fire (or perhaps rather, tinder for the fire) and he says, “Where is the lamb?” This is Isaac’s first worship; his first altar. But he knows that an important part of worship is missing. A lamb has to be killed and sacrificed.

Abraham answers this very important question by teaching his son about God. God will provide. In fact, look again at verse 8 and you will see that his answer is very strongly focussed on God. God will provide “for himself”, Abraham says. Now I know that some will look at Abraham’s answer and go, “Hmm, this guy isn’t being honest. He is covering up the fact the Isaac is going to be the one sacrificed on the altar.”

But it’s worth asking: Why does Genesis record this conversation at all? I mean, why not record instead what Isaac said when Abraham tied him to the altar: “Noooooo!” That’s the dialogue all of us would be more interested to read about.

Rather, what we have here is a moment spent between a father and son, and what it looks like for a son to trust his father, as his father to trust in God. Isaac is obviously smart enough to figure out there’s something wrong with the picture: where’s the lamb? But he trusts his father. And Abraham responds to that trust by teaching Isaac of his personal trust in God. God himself will provide.

That is what my friend Wallace was talking about. He was concerned not just that he trusted God in times of difficulty and doubt, but that his own kids learned to do the same. Here we see, it’s not just about dragging your rebellious teenagers and dumping them in Sunday School. It’s the drive to church - your own eagerness to worship God. It’s when you yourself are being tested by God. It’s your personal struggles being worked out with God in full view of those you love - your kids, your family, your friends - and pointing to the one who is trustworthy: God. He himself will provide. He has promised. I trust him, so can you.

And notice again how verse 8 repeats the phrase “So they went both of them together”. Abraham’s journey with God was now Isaac’s. His faith was now his son’s.

The sacrifice

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
Genesis 22:9-12

Jewish scholars refer to this passage as the “Aqedah”, a word which means, “binding”, referring to the binding of Isaac on the altar. The Qur’an records the events in this chapter without mentioning the name of the son whom God told Abraham to sacrifice. Muslim scholars contend that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was bound to the altar. Both emphasise the role played by the son. It was the son of Abraham who displayed true faith and was willing to be sacrificed on the altar of God, as if Isaac were saying to his father, “Do it, Dad. Go ahead!”

But the bible does not record a single word spoken by Isaac.

Earlier on it did. When they were walking together as father and son. But not here. Here the focus is squarely on Abraham. As verse 1 indicates, this was God’s test of Abraham alone. Abraham built the altar. He laid the wood. He bound Isaac on top of the wood. Verse 10: “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

“Abraham, Abraham!”

You could almost hear the urgency in God’s voice. “The angel of the LORD called... from heaven”. This was a direct message, hand-delivered, first class, straight from heaven. “Whoa, Abraham!” The message was to release Isaac. Notice how God refers to Abraham’s son, “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

If we are honest, some of us are asking ourselves at this point of the story, “Isn’t this cruel?” Now? Now you know that Abraham fears God? What kind of God would do this? What kind of person would do this?

But you see, the story doesn’t end here. God wasn’t simply daring Abraham in a game of chicken - to see who would dodge first. If so, this would be a cruel game: this would be a story of a creator toying with his creation simply for his amusement. That would be so if the story ended with Abraham simply letting Isaac go and God saying all this was just a ruse.

No, Abraham came with his son to build an altar to worship God. And as Isaac had implied earlier, the worship of God involved sacrifice; the life and blood of a living animal. But it was God, not Abraham, who would provide the sacrifice on the altar.

And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place, “The LORD will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
Genesis 22:13-14

Scholars debate the meaning of the name of this mountain. Abraham calls it “The LORD will provide”, YHWH-Yireh. But it could easily be translated as “The LORD sees”; and verse 14: “On the mount of the LORD he will be seen.”

Abraham lifts his eyes and sees a ram. God had provided this animal as a sacrifice instead of Isaac - as a substitute - “instead of his son”. We know from 2 Chronicles 3 that this mountain of Moriah (Genesis 22:2) would later be the site where the temple was built by Solomon. This was God’s mountain, where God was seen, and where God provided the sacrifice for worship and a substitute for our sin. “Abraham took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

God provided a substitute. An animal died instead of - and in place of - Isaac.

Because you have done this

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba. And Abraham lived at Beersheba.
Genesis 22:15-19

So God repeats his promise to Abraham of immense blessing and innumerable descendants. Also through his kids, “all the nations of the earth” will be blessed. Why? “Because you obeyed my voice” (verse 18).

And then something very curious happens in verse 19. Abraham returned to the servants. Singular: as in, Abraham alone, not Abraham and Isaac. In case you think I’m nitpicking, Jewish scholars are so puzzled by this statement that they suggest Isaac really was killed at the altar, and that God had physically raised him from the dead. Now, these are Jewish - not Christian - scholars contending for this view, so I’m not trying to read my own personal view into the text that isn’t there.

In fact, I hold the opposite view. The New Testament goes against this idea of Isaac dying on the altar. Hebrews 11 says, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17a,19). It is saying that Abraham had every confidence that even if Isaac was killed, God could simply raise him again to life. But it also says, “figuratively... he did receive him back.” Meaning: Isaac didn’t die.

Instead a substitute died in the place of Isaac. Christians believe that substitute was Jesus.

Abraham saw my day and rejoiced

Now I could turn to passages like Matthew Chapter 1 that emphasis Jesus as the true “son of Abraham”, tracing back his ancestry back generation by generation through King David, all the way to Father Abraham. Or I could turn to Romans 4 where Paul insists that Christians are the true heirs of the promise to Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ alone.

But one of the most puzzling passages, and I think, the coolest text connecting Jesus and Abraham is found in John Chapter 8. Right near the end of the Chapter, Jesus says to a crowd of Jews these words:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad." So the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am."
John 8:56-58

At this, the Jews picked up stones to throw at Jesus. He had said something deeply offensive, not against Abraham, but against God. Jesus was claiming to be God when we said “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” “I am” was the translation of God’s name (found in Exodus 3:14).

But just before that, Jesus says, “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day.” What was that about? What was is that Abraham longed to see, that filled him with so much joy.

We know the answer to that question, don’t we? It was his son. “Isaac” means “joy” and “laughter”: His son, his only son. The son whom he loved.

And Jesus says, “He saw it.” What was it that Abraham looked up on the mountain - and behold - he saw? The substitute for the son whom he loved. And Jesus adds, “He rejoiced.”

Thousands of years later, another son would walk up a mountain in Moriah, called Golgotha. He would carry the wood on his shoulders. He was obedient to God’s word. He was submissive to his Father.

Only he would walk alone.

There was no substitute to take his place. No word from heaven to stop the execution. No words of comfort to reassure him. On this mountain, God’s son - his only son, the son whom he loved - was sacrificed for us. There on the cross, he took our place.

For God so loved the world that he gave - his only Son - that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
Romans 8:32

What did Abraham see? Or rather, what do you see when you look at the cross?

Love? Sacrifice? A substitute? All true and all precious.

Jesus says, “He saw my day and rejoiced.” Jesus was his truest joy. His highest treasure. His greatest love.

This is the good news of the gospel. God has given us his son, freely, that he might take our punishment, our sin and our death as our substitute; and by trusting in Jesus we might receive true and eternal life, forgiveness and reconciliation, love from God our Heavenly Father.

And Jesus as our truest and highest joy.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Hiding from God (Revelation 6)

Fear factor

I’m not a fan of scary movies. But I understand why people like them.

In fact, the grosser, the more realistic and the more menacing the scene, the more movie-goers are happy to pay good money to get freaked out looking at it on the big screen. Because as long as they are sitting in those seats - munching stale pop-corn and sipping overpriced soda - they know that they are safe. It may look real. And they pay extra to watch it in 3D so that it appears as real as possible. But they know it isn’t real. They know they are safe.

The opposite is true of the book of Revelation. Especially today’s passage.

The imagery is fairly tame compared to Hollywood. Riders on horses. The sky being rolled back like a scroll. I mean, I’ve seen scarier scenes in Disney movies. Yet many pastors dare not preach this text from Revelation. People get offended reading these words in Revelation. Because Revelation is giving us a picture of reality - a reality that is even greater, and perhaps, even scarier, than the images we will be looking at today.

So by the end of our study, the important question for us to answer is not: Was it scary? But rather, is it true? Will this happen?

The seven seals

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.
Revelation 6:1-2

The whole of Chapter 6 is divided into six segments, each triggered by the event of Jesus breaking a seal on a scroll, much like someone flicking a switch and turning the lights on one by one. The breaking of the seals is symbolic of the instructions of a will being put into effect. A king would leave a will containing important instructions about his inheritance, what was to be done with the kingdom. But all this would be kept locked up and secret until the death of the king, after which, the seals on this document would be broken, its contents read and the instructions executed.

This scroll in verse 1 has seven seals. This is God’s will (seven is the number of perfection symbolic of God). God has sealed this document. But the event of the death of Jesus on the cross means that the will of God can now be carried out.

What follows is judgement, war, famine, disease and ultimately, death, graphically portrayed in this vision given to John by four horses and their four riders. All four begin in the same way. (1) The Lamb breaks opens a seal. (2) One of the four living creatures - that is, an angelic being from the throne of God - summons a horse and its rider, who then (3) ride off to cause havoc and destruction on mankind. Each horse is different - the first is white, the second, red, the third, black and the fourth, pale - and each colour is symbolic of the judgement they carry. White is the colour of victory or conquest, red symbolises internal struggle and civil war, black is for famine, and the pale for disease and death.

The white horse

Of the four, it is the first horse and its rider that are most controversial. Verse 2: “There before me was a white horse! It’s rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” Because of it’s colour (white) and because of the crown (symbolising kingly authority) given to the rider of the first horse, many think that this is describing Jesus, riding into victory over his enemies. They say this because of Revelation Chapter 19, where we find another horse, also in white, whose rider is called Faithful and True; his name is the Word of God, on his head are many crowns and “with justice he judges and makes war”. Without a doubt, this is Jesus the victorious King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Revelation 19.

Yet this horse and its rider in Revelation Chapter 6 is summoned before the throne of Jesus. “Come!” says one  of the living creatures from the throne with a voice like thunder, the exact same way the other three horses are summoned - as servants before God. Furthermore, in the Old Testament the prophet Zechariah mentions four groups of horses sent out by God into the world bearing the same four colours found here in Revelation, the implication being, that all four of these horses fulfil the same function in obedience to God’s will, namely judgement and death.

Those who object to this view point out that the first horse and its rider receives no such mandate of destruction from the throne of God. They might say that the colour white is a symbol of this rider’s purity, not unlike the white clothes worn by believers in Sardis for instance, in Revelation Chapter 3. All this is valid. But I wonder the underlying issue has more to do with the uncomfortable association this first horse and rider has with both the image of Jesus as the conquering king in Chapter 19, as well as, the three other horses found here in Chapter 6 which are more sinister. How do we reconcile these two images - one of Jesus, the other, of judgement?

Firstly, the colour white is more symbolic of victory, than it is of purity. Hence the believers in Sardis are clothed in white because their have “overcome”. The Greek word, nikao, means to overcome, to be victorious, and even, to conquer. The same word is found here in verse 2 describing the white rider as a “conqueror”(nikoon) bent on “conquest”(nikese).

Secondly, the striking similarity between this conqueror and the Lord Jesus Christ in Chapter 19 may suggest that the role played by the first horsemen has less to do with destruction and more to do with deception. What we have here is a false representation of Christ’s second coming, one that mimics some of his kingly power but none of his righteousness or glory. “He rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.” - this rider’s sole purpose is destruction, but he does so using deception. Remember when we met the Nicolaitans back in Chapter 2 of Revelation, whose name in Greek meant “conqueror of peoples”. They “conquered” or led astray the believers in the church through their deceptive teaching. They were even described as following ways of Balaam, whose name in Hebrew similarly meant, “the conqueror of people”.

The white horse and his rider symbolises conquest by deception. Worrying still, he is summoned by the throne of God to unleash his destruction on the world. We will come back to this and see how God can sovereign even over the forces of evil.

But for now, we turn to the second horse, a fiery red one.

The red horse

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.
Revelation 6:3-4

Peace is taken away from the earth resulting in men slaying - literally, the word means slaughtering - one another.

When the person you are most afraid of - who might endanger your life, who might endanger your family’s safety - is not some dictator bent on oppressing his people; is not some religious fanatic trying to blow up your office block - but your neighbour; the person sitting next to you in the bus; your childhood friend you have known all your life. When you can no longer trust those who are closest to you to protect you, instead, they are the very ones who will betray your trust and cause you harm. That is what this passage is talking about.

Don’t take peace for granted. It is a gift from God - a mercy from our creator who knows our violent hearts.

Yet it was Jesus himself who warned us that this peace would one day be pulled away - like a rug under our feet - as part of the judgement on this world for its rebellion against God. Jesus says in Matthew Chapter 10.

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”
Matthew 10:34-36

Do you see hear these words? I did not come to bring peace, but a sword? What was it again the red horsemen was given power to do? “To take peace from the each. To him was given a large sword.” This is a transient peace. One that will not last. One that will be taken away.

Yet elsewhere in the gospels, we find Jesus offering a different kind of peace to his followers - a peace that is unlike the world’s. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)

When God’s peace is removed from our hearts, what is left is fear, anguish, hate, anger and violence. This is the red horseman - given power to take away peace from the earth.

The black horse

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!”
Revelation 6:5-6

A quart of wheat was what an average guy would eat to keep him going for the day. Think of it as two big macs, a couple of large fries and a litre of coke. Except it says here that it costs him a whole day’s salary just for this meal - seventy pounds. What if he had a wife and kids? Well, that’s where the barley comes in. If you couldn’t afford wheat, barley was the cheap stuff. So if you needed to feed a family and kids, instead of a couple of big mac meals, you’d just buy the fries. You would work all day as a labourer, come home, and have just enough money to feed your kids fries. Fries for breakfast, fries for lunch, fries for dinner.

The black rider symbolises famine and economic strife. The “pair of scales” in verse 5 are not the scales of justice. Rather, scales were used in the ancient world for food rationing. It meant there wasn’t enough to go around, so you used the scales to measure out each persons ration, like what Britain had to do during wartime, with sugar and eggs and flour. I was watching a cooking programme a few weeks back featuring war-time recipes. Sugar and fruit was very scarce, so housewives had to be very inventive and experimental with their cooking. They used carrots to replace fruit and dried mashed potatoes to replace flour in the pastry according to a wartime recipe for apricot pie. Yummy!

There is however a limitation. At the end of verse 6 we read, “Do not damage the oil and wine!” These are the luxury goods. The price of food has gone up and people are struggling to feed their families with their low wages. But you can still buy iPods. Everyone can still afford a blackberry. Someone posted on Facebook the other day, “If everyone lived like the US we would need five planets to survive.” Why is that? You really can only eat so much in a day. You really only need to spend so much in a day. Yet we spend more than we have, we buy more than we need, and we waste more than we use.

The third rider and its black horse brings a severe judgement of famine, economic strife and hardship - yet, this is the one judgement that some experience more than others. Some people can live off wine and oil; they would happily pay a hundred pounds for a McDonald’s meal - remembering of course, that in many parts of the world, the five pounds we pay for a burger meal would seem like a hundred pounds - while millions die of hunger and starvation.

Yet the worst is yet to come.

The pale horse

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.
Revelation 6:7-8
This appears to be the worst judgement - Death and Hades. Some see in this passage, four waves of judgement indicated by the four horses and their riders. This is therefore, the worst.

Yet the fourth horse is not so much an addition as it is a summary of the first three horses. Look at verse 8: Death and Hades are first given power (symbolic of the authority of the first white horse), then a sword (given to the second rider of the red horse); they cause famine (indicating the third black horse). We are then left with the additional elements of the plague and death by wild beasts.

Its pale colour - think of it as the colour of mucus; pale green and yellowish - is symbolic of the judgement of plague and disease. In an age where people are living healthier and longer thanks to vast improvements in health-care and amazing breakthroughs in medical science, we need to remember that many still die of AIDS and cancer every year. A virus like SARS can lock down an entire city like it did just a few years ago in Hong Kong and Singapore.

This is where the mention of wild beasts (literally beasts of the earth) comes in, as it pictures a scenario of civilisation devastated by war and disease, it’s population decimated to such a point that it is now overrun by wild animals. Think of the movie “I am Legend”; Will Smith as the last surviving human in Manhattan fending of wild dogs hunting in packs on the streets of New York.

Yet when the same phrase “beast of the earth” occurs later in Revelation 13, we find there not a wild animal, but a demonic creature under the command of Satan. Here Revelation is pointing forward to persecution and oppression, specifically that of believers who place their trust in Jesus.

The fourth riders, Death and Hades, encapsulate all four of the judgements levelled on the earth - deception and conquest, war and civil unrest, famine and economic strife, death and disease. Yet we must remember that these four horses and their riders are summoned before the throne of God. Each wave is triggered by the Lamb - by Jesus - breaking off a seal from the scroll containing God’s will for judgement and salvation.

And what we find next are believers appealing to God to bring judgement upon the inhabitants of the earth.

The altar

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.
Revelation 6:9-11

This could be symbolic of the altar of sacrifice at the temple. The souls are described as being “under the altar”, calling out to God to avenge their “blood”. The Old Testament priests would sacrifice the slaughtered bulls and goats on top of the altar, but then would pour the blood at the base of the altar. This blood was symbolic of the animal’s life now poured out in death. Here, the “souls” under the altar are calling for God to avenge their death, “because of the word of God and the testimony (a Greek word where we get the English “martyr”) they had maintained.” The were killed for speaking the gospel.

I think this isn’t talking about the sacrificial altar outside the temple, but rather the altar of incense inside the tabernacle. Last week we saw in Chapter 5 the elders holding golden bowls full of incense, which John tells us, “are the prayers of the saints”. These are prayers for God to act in justice and holiness - notice how they address God as “holy and true”. It is a call for God to be consistent with his own nature. How can he allow evil to remain? How can a holy God tolerate sin and wickedness in a world of his own creation?

And God’s answer in verse 11 is patience. God is waiting and answers these prayers for holy justice and righteous judgement by telling believers - even, persecuted Christians - to “wait a little longer”. God is much more patient with the world than we are. His patience means salvation. Look at what he says, “Until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”

Now I admit, I’m having a lot of trouble with this verse. Is the bible saying that God allows Christians to die? Does it imply that God allows suffering that results in the death of innocents? It would seem that the answer to both these questions is Yes.

Yet remember back in Revelation 2 where we met Antipas, whom Jesus calls “my faithful witness, who was put to death” in a city where Satan lives. The result of that death was the faithfulness of the believers in that city, “You did not renounce your faith in me.” I remember as well the death of Stephen, the first martyr in Acts 8. Even as the crowd threw stones to kill him, he continued to witness to Jesus and even prayed for their forgiveness. The deaths of these witnesses was not a waste. God will indeed judge those responsible for their deaths. Yet in his mercy and patience, God can and does use the death of his servants to bring others to faith in Jesus; perhaps, even the perpetrators of their deaths. Look at Saul, who was there at Stephen’s stoning, “giving approval to his death”. Peter writes in his second letter, “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.” (2 Peter 3:15)

The believers petition God to act consistently with his holiness and justice. God must judge, they say. As we have seen in the first four horsemen, God will judge. He summons Death and Hades before his throne. Yet God is also infinitely patient. He holds back his judgement. In his providence and mercy, even the unjust acts resulting in the death of innocent believers, God is able to use to bring many to faith in him through his Son Jesus.

The fifth seal is a genuine response by those who trust in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. It is their prayer. The sixth seal is the final response of those who ultimately do not believe and will not trust in Jesus.

The wrath of the Lamb

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.
Revelation 6:12-14

Most of us have seen movies depicting the final destruction of the earth - movies like Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2012 - all of which portray an end-time scenario of cosmic devastation and destruction. There are advanced special effects, realistic CGI models of well-known landmarks being blown up by giant alien spaceships interspersed with human emotion: tears, conflict, pathos, hope and loss.

Yet you read a simple passage like this - just words - and it still sends a chill down your spine. Creation being de-created. The sun blackened. The moon turns blood red. The stars are extinguished. The very ground pulled from under our feet.

And yet notice the reaction of men and women to all this destruction.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”
Revelation 6:15-17

They see all this destruction. They know it is the end of the world. And their reaction is to hide from God. Faced with horror, devastation, judgement and death, these men and women are more fearful of their Creator. They actually call on the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us!” They would rather face death than to see God's face in all his holiness and his anger.

Why is it that pastors are afraid to preach from Revelation 6? And why are we embarrassed by passages which speak of final judgement? Could it be that we don’t see what these men and women see. We do not see the anger of God. We do not see that there is something worse and more fearful than physical death and suffering.

“Hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!” they cry out. They cannot bear to see God’s face. But notice also, it isn’t just God they are running from. It is also the wrath of Jesus, the Lamb. In case we missed that, verse 17, re-emphasises: For the great day of their wrath - both God’s and the Lamb’s - has come.

Yet notice also that Revelation insists on referring to Jesus as the Lamb, and not as the Lion of Judah. That would make more sense, wouldn’t it? A roaring, menacing Lion! That would be truly scary. But a wrathful lamb? That's about as scary as an angry WM or an unhappy Winnie!

The reason the bible combines these images of judgement, wrath and Jesus as the Lamb is because it wants us to show us the full measure of God’s anger for sin. It’s not seen in the destruction of the world, though that will happen. It’s not even in the eternal condemnation of unrepentant souls in hell, though that will happen. No, God’s clearest picture of his anger for our sin is the cross of Jesus Christ. Where we see an innocent man abandoned by man and condemned by God - that is how much God is angry with your sin and my sin.

And that is how much God loves the world.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

Is this true? The answer to this question turns on the cross.

Christians believe the future events foretold in the book of Revelation because they all point back to one single event in history - the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. If Jesus Christ was the Son of God come to earth as a man. If he really died on the cross for my sins to take the judgement of the world upon himself. If he was raised from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father, reigning in glory from God’s throne in heaven.

If that is true, then he is worthy to open the seals. He is worthy to be worshipped as God. He will return in glory. And all heaven and earth will acknowledge Jesus as the Lamb who was slain, as Lord of heaven and earth. Every knee shall bow. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:9-11

We belong to the day
To the day that is to come
When the night falls away
And our Saviour will return
For the glory of the King is in our hearts
On that day we will be seen for what we are

Strong as a mighty rock
Our refuge in the coming wrath
The heart of the bride belongs
To Jesus, Jesus
The earth in its turning stops
To marvel at the Son of God
And all of that day belongs
To Jesus, Jesus
(“We belong to the day”, Michael Morrow)

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Every tribe

The sole basis of evangelism and the world-wide mission of the church rests on the bloody sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross two-thousand years ago. We saw this in Sunday’s passage from Revelation 5 as the four living creatures and twenty-four elders worshipped before the throne of God in heaven, singing these words of praise to the Lord Jesus Christ:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
Revelation 5:9

1. Because you were slain
The future salvation of the people of God is made certain by an event in past history, namely, the cross of Jesus Christ. “You were slain”; “you purchased for God”; and a few verses earlier, the elder tells John that the Lion of Judah “has triumphed”. As John is given a glimpse into a heavenly reality far into the future, what he encounters instead is all of heaven looking back to the past event of the cross to find there the certainty of salvation, the fulfilment of God’s purposes and the worthiness of Jesus as the lamb who was slain.

2. With your blood you purchased
Here, Jesus’ blood is pictured as currency. The Greek word, “egorasas” is used in commerce and business transactions; meaning: This was a high price to pay. Nothing less than the death and condemnation of Jesus could secure the forgiveness of men and women for God.

With regard to evangelism, these words of praise spoken by angels remind us of the worthiness of Jesus; not simply the urgency of missions. In the face of vast numbers of unreached people groups, increased hostility towards missionaries, persecution of believers who speak out for the gospel - the bible sets before us not a to-do list of problems to be overcome but Jesus who deserves to be praised. He is worthy to be worshipped. His blood secures salvation. His sacrifice makes mission possible. John Piper writes in his book “Let the nations be glad”:

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the Church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn’t. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever.

3. From every tribe
The word “tribe” is often used in the bible to refer to the descendants of twelve sons of Jacob - the Twelve tribes of Israel (eg. Matthew 19:28). Yet here, it most likely has a generic meaning, as in, “communities”; in the same way that “ethnous”/“nations” often meant non-Israelite (hence, you sometimes find it rendered, “Gentiles”), but in the New Testament takes on the wider meaning of the multiplicity of various people groups around the world.

The blood of Jesus purchases men and women from every tribe, every language, every people and every nation. It is not simply saying that a whole lot of people are going to be saved. (It is not even saying that every single individual will be saved - hence the word “from”.) What it is saying is that new redeemed community of God will come from every conceivable background and culture and heritage and history and colour and race. It will not be homogeneous. God’s community will a mixed bunch of individuals and communities vastly different from one another.

I think we need to be aware of that, not just in the context of overseas missions, but even more so within the local church. We naturally want to stay within our own culture and tribe, and a lot of that is simply a reflection of the unique identity God has given us - he made us human, but he also gave us gender, colour, language and community. All of this comes from God. All of this is part of his creation.

So I think it is wonderful that we can have a Chinese Church right here, smack in the middle of an English city like Cambridge. We can continue being Chinese - worshipping Jesus in Mandarin, Cantonese, and yes even English; we can have Chinese food at our gatherings, we can retain our culture, heritage and values - such as respect for our elders - which are good and godly. But at the same time, we ought not to let our Chinese-ness become a hindrance for the gospel. Because it can. And unless we are careful; and unless we constantly bring our focus back to Jesus and the cross, it certainly will.

Yet, in the same way that we Chinese have a unique identity and culture, so too, I would argue, do the academic community in Cambridge. The students are, if you like, a tribe. In terms of age (18-22), language (well-spoken and confident in English) and social interaction (living in colleges, eating in the same halls, even going to the same churches together), the undergraduates at Cambridge have a unique identity of their own. I was not very surprised last year, when some students implied that there shouldn’t be cultural groupings within Christians, such as the Chinese Christian Fellowship, in favour of one large gathering of students all from different backgrounds and all focussed on the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet these students may not have realised that they were simply abandoning one social tribe for another - the tribe of the Cambridge undergraduate!

4. They reign on the earth

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.
Revelation 5:10

Most bibles translate the closing words of the song in the future tense. “They will reign on the earth”. But it could easily be rendered in the present infinitive, that is, “They reign” or “They are reigning”. I think the present continuous tense is more faithful to the text. And I think it is talking about the authority that lies behind missions and evangelism.

After his death, and upon his resurrection, Jesus met his disciples and said to them:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Matthew 28:18-20

This is authority from heaven over all the nations. Jesus invests in us as Christians his authority to establish his kingdom here on earth. Not by conquest. Not by building a Christian nation. Not by coercion or force. But by announcing the message of the cross and pointing back to his one sacrifice for our sins, teaching the obedience that comes from trusting in Jesus Christ alone as our God and our Saviour.

Thank you for the cross Lord
Thank you for the price You paid
Bearing all my sin and shame
In love You came
And gave amazing grace

Worthy is the Lamb
Seated on the throne
Crown You now with many crown
You reign victorious
High and lifted up
Jesus Son of God
The Darling of Heaven crucified
Worthy is the Lamb
(Darlene Zschech, “Worthy is the Lamb”)

Saturday 22 October 2011

Worthy is the Lamb (Revelation 5)

What did Jesus accomplish on the cross?

Or put it this way: What difference does it make whether or not Jesus died on the cross?

Some say it makes no difference at all. Jesus was a good moral teacher who taught us how to live good upright lives. It was tragic that he died, but that is no different from any other human political assassinated for his political beliefs, such as Martin Luther King.

Others might say, as Muslims do, that Jesus did not really die. Now, the Qur’an does mention Jesus as a prophet sent from God. But to say that God would allow his prophet to be stripped naked and executed on a cross is going to far. That would be blasphemous and insulting towards God. So much so, that Muslims believe that Jesus will one day return to earth to destroy the symbol of the cross.

Yet Christians believe that Jesus did die. The bible even insists that Jesus had to die on the cross.

In case you are new to Christianity; or perhaps you are not convinced by Christianity and are skeptical about any claim from the bible about God or Jesus Christ, today’s passage might still interest you. Because either this passage from Revelation 5 is going to be the strangest, most unbelievable, outrageous piece of science fiction you are ever going to encounter; or, it is going to be the clearest, most convincing and most convicting explanation Scripture has to offer, as to what Jesus accomplished when he died on the cross two-thousand years ago.

The scroll

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.
Revelation 5:1

John picks up from his vision in Chapter 4 of God as King ruling from heaven. God is the one seated on the throne. Meaning: God is always powerfully working out his purposes in all of creation, even in the face of opposition, rejection and evil. God is always in charge and in control of his creation.

And what we see here is God holding a scroll symbolising his full and final plan for creation. Yet this scroll is sealed with seven seals. It is locked up.

John tells us that the scroll has writing on both sides. This was unusual in John’s day as only one side of a scroll would be used for writing. The reason has to do with the way scrolls were made. You may remember learning in school about the papyrus plant. Strips of papyrus would first be laid vertically side by side, and then a second layer would be overlaid horizontally across and glued to together to form the papyrus scroll. Usually you only wrote on one side of the scroll - the side with the horizontal strips. If you had more to say, you would write on a second scroll. The only reason why you would write on both sides of one scroll instead of using two separate scrolls, is to avoid the possibility of the two scrolls being separated from one another.

This scroll in God’s right hand is written on both sides. This indicates the fullness of God’s purposes written in this one scroll, but also signifies that its contents must not be separated. The scroll contains God’s plan for salvation as well as judgement. Both are part of the same plan. Salvation and judgement must not be separated.

Yet the scroll is sealed. Until the seals are broken, God’s plans cannot be known or carried out.

Who is worthy?

And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.
Revelation 5:2-3

Notice that the angel does not ask, “Who is strong enough to break the seals?” The issue is not strength or ability, but rather, suitability. “Who is worthy?”

Last week we saw the four living creatures and twenty-four elders bow down before God saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God...for you created all things.” God is worthy to be worshipped. Creation was made to worship its creator.

But now the angel asks who is worthy to carry out God’s purposes for salvation and judgement by breaking the seals and opening the scroll. And the answer is: no-one. Not in heaven, nor on earth; meaning: none of the angelic beings can do this and no human being or creature can do this. Nor under the earth; meaning: not even a someone from past history who is now dead and buried can do this.

In all of creation, no one is worthy. In all of history, no one is worthy.

I wept and wept

I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside.
Revelation 5:4

The news of a hit-and-run accident involving two-year old Wang Yue sparked outrage and sadness amongst the online community in China this week. Surveillance footage showed the toddler being run over by two vans and ignored by eighteen passers-by as she lay on the street bleeding and unconscious. Wang Yue finally succumbed to her injuries and died on Friday after spending a week in hospital in a coma. Millions of comments have since flooded the Internet expressing anger, disbelief and sorrow at the tragedy. Many were outraged at the apathy of the passers-by who did nothing to help the little girl, even questioning the moral compass and apathy of the Chinese people in general. One commenter wrote, “We are all passers-by”.

Are these responses are simply emotional or psychological? Granted, the death of any child is reason enough to be sorrowful. Some have suggested the passers-by were afraid of being scammed. Others have proposed laws mandating bystanders to help accident victims.

Yet suppose you were one of passers-by that Friday. And suppose you saw Yue Yue lying unconscious on the street. Should it be a law - and the fear of prosecution under that law - that ultimately motivates you to help her? Should we not be moved to action by our conscience, our compassion or justice - our sense of right and wrong? Or are these merely emotional responses?

The bible says God is the ultimate objective measure of truth and goodness. Without God, it would be meaningless to discuss the problem of evil because by definition there would be no measure of what is evil outside the objective goodness of God. Similarly, there would be no meaning to our suffering, pain and sorrow without God. Commenting on tragedies like the death of Wang Yue would, at best, be academic or utilitarian, like fixing the economy.

You see, when we read in Revelation of John weeping and weeping because no one was found worthy to open the scroll and look inside, his is both an emotional response and a right response. Contained within the scroll are God’s final resolution to all the injustices in the world and all the suffering in the world. This is God’s plan to put right a world gone wrong.

Yet John’s tears are not simply an expression of sadness and grief, but ultimately, of despair. The locked scroll implies that evil will get away with evil. That is the world we live in, isn’t it? We see unfairness, exploitation, selfishness, apathy and cruelty everyday that goes unresolved and unpunished. Evil gets away with evil.

But if there is a God who is all good and all powerful, then he will punish evil. God is angry when he see a two-year old being run over again and again and God will do something about it. If there is a God who is all loving, then God is saddened when he sees our apathy. God will do something about that to.

It means when we look at a tragedy - a death of a loved one, the suffering of the cancer patient, the death of an unborn child - our response of grief is not just natural. It is right. Do you hear what I’m saying? There is meaning in your sadness. And the bible says we find that meaning in the cross of Jesus Christ.

Because right after this, one of the twenty-four elders tells John to stop his crying and to look to Jesus, “He has triumphed.”

I saw a Lamb

Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.” Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.
Revelation 5:5-6

Notice that the elder tells John to see the lion, but when John does look he sees a lamb instead. What is going on? Did the lion transform into a lamb? No. Rather, the first is a description of who he is, and the second, what he has done.

Firstly, who he is. He is the Lion of Judah and the Root of David, both titles referring to Messiah or Christ. This is God’s chosen King. The term “Lion of Judah” comes from Genesis 49 at the scene of Jacob blessing his son Judah with the promise of authority - even, kingly authority - as symbolised here by the mention of the “scepter” and “ruler’s staff”.

Like a lion he crouches and lies down,
like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet.
Genesis 49:9-10

From this tribe would descend, eleven generations later, the great King David. Additionally, it was to David that God promised one of his descendants would always be on the throne - very similar to the prophecy giving to Judah by his father Jacob, God was pointing forward to a greater king who would rule over a greater kingdom. Even though most of David’s descendants turned out to be sinful and idolatrous kings who disobeyed God and led the entire nation astray, this promise remained one of the most powerful symbols of hope for Israel in the Old Testament. The prophets kept pointing forward, saying one day, one of David’s descendants would inherit the throne and establish God’s kingdom in righteousness here on earth.

Such was the prophet Isaiah, who wrote these words over 700 years before Jesus was born:

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
Isaiah 11:1-3

Notice how Isaiah talks about the stump and roots of Jesse (Jesse being David’s father). This is picture language of a remnant - leftovers, if you like - of the kingdom that is left long after David’s reign. It is in tatters. It is just a stump - like what you get when you cut down a tall tree. It is a humble shadow of its former glory. Yet, Isaiah says that out this stump will come a shoot, symbolising another king. Upon this king would rest God’s spirit of power, wisdom and love.

Who is this root of David and Lion of Judah? It is God’s chosen king, also known as the Christ. This is why Matthew, the gospel writer, goes to great pains in the opening chapter of his gospel to show how Jesus was the true descendant of King David and the fulfilment of all the expectations of the Old Testament for the Messiah. In fact, the title “Son of God” in gospels like Mark was another way of referring to the Christ or God’s chosen king.

So back to Revelation, the elder taps John on the shoulder and says to him, “John, stop your crying. Look! The King of Kings; the heir to the throne of David is coming. He is worthy to open the scroll.” You would expect at this point to see an image of great power - he is the Lion of Judah; of great strength - he is able to break open the seals on the scroll; of glory and triumphant victory after a great battle - he has overcome, the elder says.

But instead John sees a lamb that was slain. It is not that John sees two animals - a lion and then a lamb. Rather the point is, the lion is the lamb. He is the king who offers his life in sacrifice. Jesus is the Lamb of God, slain for our sins.

And because he was slain, Jesus is worthy to approach God’s throne and take the scroll from God’s right hand. More than that, Jesus is worthy to be worshipped.

Because you were slain

He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.
Revelation 5:7-8

All of four living creatures and the twenty-four elders - all of the angelic servants before God’s throne - bow down and worship Jesus, the Lamb of God. Remember what happened last week in Chapter 4. They were worshipping God. God was worthy of worship. God created the universe. But now, these same heavenly angels give their praise and worship to Jesus.

Each one of the elders are said to be holding a harp. I have heard this used as illustration for why we should have electric guitars in church; why it is important to have music in the church - and I think there is great truth in this picture of heaven itself praising God in music and song, and even with instruments of song.

Yet the purpose of the harps is symbolic of joy. Today we hear “harp” and think foyer at the Marriott hotel. But in Jewish culture, the harp was a happy instrument. Think mariachi band - big hats, loud trumpets and Speedy Gonzales.

Which is why “by the rivers of Babylon”, the Israelites hung up their harps, in Psalm 137. They were evicted from their country and oppressed by a foreign enemy. They could no longer sing songs that were happy and joyful.

And moments earlier, John was weeping in sorrow and despair. But now Jesus turns up and heaven is rejoicing. That is the symbolism of the harp. Mourning has turned to joy and praise.

And singing:

And they sang a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.”
Revelation 5:9-10

Go back to the image John saw standing in the centre of the throne: a lamb that was slain. It is repeated here in this “new song” sung by the angels - “You were slain and with your blood you purchased for God”.

It is a gruesome picture. John uses a word borrowed from the abattoir where animals are slaughtered. That is what “slain” means - animals were cut open. That is what the priests did as they sacrificed animals at the temple. The lamb was symbolic of God’s judgement for the sins of the people. It was killed to take our punishment so that we could be forgiven of our wrong-doing.

Also, this reminds us of the Passover lamb recorded in the book of Exodus. Blood from this sacrificial lamb was sprinkled on the door posts of the Israelite homes. That night, the Destroyer sent from God would see the blood and “pass over” that house, therefore sparing the life of the first born in that family.

Back in Singapore and Malaysia, the loan-sharks scare people into paying up their overdue debts by splashing red paint on their front door or even blood, and sometimes placing a severed pig’s head at the entrance of their homes. It was a vivid way of saying, “Pay up, or else!”

But here, the blood of the lamb means the debt has been settled. It has been paid in full. “With your blood you purchased - that is, you paid the price for - men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” That includes us Chinese. We don’t deserve this, by the way, but God has decided that he would sacrifice the life of his own Son, so that there would be such a strange thing as a Chinese Church smack in the middle of an English city like Cambridge. Every people. Every nation.

But then again, it also means we cannot just be Chinese here at the Chinese Church. If we truly understand what this verse is saying, we should not just invite Chinese friends, Asian friends, BBC’s to this church. In fact, I wonder if we ought to even be more intentional about telling people who are not Chinese the gospel. How well we understand the death of Jesus Christ and preciousness of his blood, is not just seen in how fervent our prayers are or how sincere you live your life for God. It is seen in who you intentionally go out of your way to love and tell the message of Jesus’ death of the cross. To walk up to someone who is totally unlike you - who has different values from you, who has an entirely different background from you, who speaks a different language from you, whose culture and heritage might even be offensive to your own - and so passionately desire to communicate to that person, “Jesus Christ died for you to make you a kingdom and a priest before God” - that’s how you show you understand the this verse in the bible.

Who would that be for us? You know, International Ministry seems to be a popular focus for churches in Cambridge today. Everyone wants to evangelise the Chinese. Everyone wants to reach the Muslims. In a way, it is almost be a sensible thing to do here in Cambridge where there are so many Chinese and so many Muslims living in this city. Yet, when Jesus approached the Samaritan woman at the well, it was a gesture so shocking and so scandalous, that woman was surprised Jesus was even talking to her. What kind of person would be totally caught off guard if you starting talking to him or her about the gospel? Who would that be for us here in the Chinese Church? Would it be inconceivable for us to have an African ministry here in the Chinese Church? Would it be surprising to have a service entirely in Japanese, or even a bible study with more English locals than internationals?

Why not?

If this verse is true, Jesus died for the Chinese Church, but not just for the Chinese Church. His blood paid for men and women from every tribe, every nation, every tongue, every people group.

Do we understand this verse? It will show in the way we preach the gospel and who we go out of our way to love and bring into the Kingdom of God.

And it will be motivated by the worship of the Lamb.

Worthy is the Lamb

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!”
Revelation 5:11-12

Now look again at who is praising the lamb. It’s the angels. But not just the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders around the throne. Now John sees the entire host of heaven joining in worship and praise of Jesus - “thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand” - meaning: all of God’s angelic servants in heaven.

But he also says he hears this innumerably number of angelic beings singing in one single voice and this is John’s way of saying there is just one reason why they praise Jesus in heaven. He was slain. “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain.”

Why should you worship God? Well, last week we saw, because he made you. You owe him. Every moment you exist, every breath you have, that comes from God. It is his gift of grace for you - in sustaining you - so that you would recognise him as your creator. All creation was made to worship God. Fundamentally, that should be all the reason we need. But here, the bible gives us another reason. In fact, it is a better reason.

Jesus is worthy because he was slain. When he went to the cross, most people abandoned him. Many rejected him. Some pitied him. One guy even asks him to remember him in heaven - the thief on the cross.

But one thing most people don’t realise is that Jesus went to the cross to be crowned. He went to the cross to be glorified. That is what the angels are praising Jesus for. His majesty seen on the cross. He is worthy to be praised. He is the crucified king.

Even as Christians, I wonder if we need to be reminded of this truth. It seems to be a popular these days to have Good Friday meditations where we reflect on the events leading up to the cross. Often times, this becomes a good opportunity to reflect on our sin and Jesus’ suffering for our sin. But it does worry me when we miss the point entirely and only ever feel sorry for Jesus on the cross. That is entirely the wrong idea. In fact, that is precisely with Muslims hate the cross, and rightly so, if all it represents is weakness and pity and shame.

The cross is the coronation of the Son of God. Jesus defeated Satan on the cross. “Look!” the elder tells John in verse 5, “The Lion of Jesus has triumphed!” It is a word that means “conquered” or “overcome”, and it is in the past tense. Jesus has won a battle!

That is why all of heaven praises - not just God on the throne - but Jesus, the lamb who was slain. He is worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!

All creation sings

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.
Revelation 5:13-14

So initially it was just the angels who were praising God. But now all of creation join in - heaven, earth, under the earth and the sea. All in praise of God seated on the throne and the lamb that was slain.

Just before we look at the implications of this, I wanted to quickly recap what we have learned and answer the question we asked right in the beginning: What did Jesus accomplish on the cross? Very quickly I would like to make five observations from this text:

1.    Jesus carries out God’s final plan for salvation and judgement
There will be an end to this universe. There is a purpose to our existence. There will be punishment of all evil. There will be salvation of God’s people. What makes it all possible - salvation, judgement, the new heavens and the earth, the eternal kingdom of God - is Jesus’ death on the cross.

2.    Jesus ascends to the throne
Through his resurrection, God raised Jesus up as the true Messiah and chosen King. Jesus now rules all of creation under God’s authority from God’s throne.

3.    Jesus is worthy of worship
In Chapter 4, God alone is worthy of worship for he created all things, but now in Chapter 5, the angels now say that Jesus is worthy because he was slain. Our greatest praise of God is through Jesus and through his sacrifice on the cross. Therefore, the songs that we sing, the prayers that we speak, the gospel that we preach must always centre on the cross as the focal point of true worship of the true God.

4.    Jesus defeated Satan and death
On the cross, Jesus defeated all his enemies, including Satan, the accuser of men and women before God. He defeated death by taking the punishment of our sin upon himself and was raised to indestructable and everlasting life. The cross also means God has given all judgement over to Jesus who will one day return to judge the living and the dead.

5.    Jesus purchased men and women from every tribe and nation for God
He paid for us with his blood. Our salvation comes through the death of God’s own Son. Forgiveness and reconciliation is offered to every nation under heaven. God created the world and all its vast cultures and peoples. God’s plan is to redeem men and women from all cultures and all peoples to display his grace and his glory in Jesus.


Finally I just wanted to end by looking at the last verse of Chapter 5. The four living creatures say, “Amen.” Now why do they say that? Well, it’s the end of a prayer, that’s why. Amen is what you say when you agree with the content of that prayer. It is saying, “Yes, I agree with that. I want that. That is true.” Amen.

But I wanted to point out a very curious thing I’ve noticed in this verse, in that, when the four living creatures and the elders bow down and say, “Amen”, it is very different from when you or I say, “Amen.” Let me explain why.

If you look back to verses 11 and 12, the angels sang a “new song” praising Jesus as the lamb who was slain. But they also say that Jesus is worthy for dying on the cross because he paid for a kingdom of priests to serve God. That is, he saved men and women. Yet curiously, verse 10 reminds us that this salvation excludes the angels themselves. “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God and they will reign on the earth.”

You see, I hope that when we sing this song we will sing it rather differently. We will sing, “You are worthy, Jesus because you purchased us for God with your blood. You have made us to be kingdom and priests to serve our God forever and ever.” Or as Paul writes in Colossians, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13) Or as Peter writes, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So when we say “Amen”, I pray that what we mean is “Jesus, you have done this for us because you loved us. You saved me through your death with your blood. You have made me your own. You were slain for my sins and through your cross I receive forgiveness, hope and the promise of everlasting life. I worship you as my God and my Saviour.”


You laid aside Your majesty, gave up everything for me.
Suffered at the hands of those You had created.
You took away my guilt and shame,
When You died and rose again.
Now today You reign,
And heaven and earth exalt You.

I really want to worship You my Lord,
You have won my heart and I am Yours.
Forever and ever, I will love You.
You are the only one who died for me,
Gave Your life to set me free.
So I lift my voice to You in adoration.
("You laid aside your majesty", Noel Richards)